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The personal and the political

By Andrew Norton - posted Thursday, 25 January 2007

The Latham Diaries are much better than I thought they would be. It’s true that he’s guilty of most of the things he accuses, sometimes in a tone of outrage, other people of doing - of invading privacy, of betraying trust, of sabotaging the Labor cause. Hypocrites, however, can be wrong in their actions but right in their analysis, and Latham makes a case that is convincing in its direction if not some of its detail that the ALP is seriously dysfunctional. He is also funny, and much can be forgiven people who make us laugh.

One good thing about political memoirs - or at least memoirs that aren’t just about the public life - is that we can see more clearly how personal experiences shape and inform political views. When the book first came out I, on the basis of the introduction alone, took a swipe at the Clive Hamiltonesque themes that were emerging. Here’s more:

The treadmill of work and the endless accumulation of material goods have not necessarily made people happier. In many cases, they have denied them the time and pleasures of family life, replacing strong and loving relationships with feelings of stress and alienation.


Reading the dairies in full, it is clear where this was coming from. Especially after the “magnificent, effervescent” Oliver Latham was born in 2000, separation from family becomes a major theme, as emotionally painful as the later pancreatitis was physically painful. Personal as much as political factors were clearly behind his decision to quit politics in early 2005. He really did leave to spend more time with his family, the usual euphemism used when failed or disgraced politicians are forced to retire.

As veteran Catallaxy readers may remember, I have an interest in how the personal affects the political. A 2003 Good Weekend profile of Clive Hamilton reveals how a psychological crisis in the late 1980s led him down the Australia Institute path. Another Good Weekend profile, this time of Iraq war whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, revealed a marriage breakdown before the events that led him from being a spook to being a Green.

The trouble with these powerful personal experiences, from a policy perspective, is that those who experience them tend to over-extrapolate from their own situation, and reach conclusions that aren’t necessarily sustained by the evidence. While some people - and probably most politicians - work hours that are very family unfriendly, in general it is not the “treadmill of work” that threatens people’s relationships. It is the absence of work.

Of all places, the evidence for this is clearest in an Australia Institute publication from earlier this year, Michael Flood’s Mapping Loneliness in Australia. There is an inverse relationship between the theoretical time for connection with others and actual perceived social support (an index including having lots of friends, people to confide in and get help from, not feeling lonely, and various other factors).

The unemployed have the least social support, and those who work long hours have the most. And as this study (pdf 381KB) demonstrates there is not much difference in satisfaction with family relationships and mental health between those who work long hours and those who do not.

As Bob Birrell has shown, it is low-skilled men who are our big social problem, missing out on both jobs and relationships, the two crucial elements of male well-being.


Latham is at his policy best when he is talking about these people, rather than about the frustrations of middle-class parenting.

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First published in Catallaxy on October 29, 2005. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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